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Living Legend, Lita Fontaine

Excitement is building for the opening of Winyan, a solo survey of Lita Fontaine’s artwork, set to open on the evening of July 5 with a free public celebration.

Lita Fontaine is of Dakota, Anishinaabe, and Metis descent. She is a mother, sister, arts educator, and visual artist. She also has an infectious personality that immediately puts everyone at ease and feel taken care of. This interview with Lita and exhibition curator, Marie-Anne Redhead, Assistant Curator of Indigenous and Contemporary Art talks about the show, Lita’s past, and where she is now in her career.


How did this exhibition come about?

LF: During the pandemic, galleries were pausing a lot of their exhibitions and weren’t taking on new proposals. So, I posted on my Facebook that I was looking to work on a show and Julia Lafreniere (Head of Indigenous Ways and Learning at WAG-Qaumajuq) saw my post and connected me with Marie-Anne, and it all worked out from there. I had a show at the WAG 20 years ago, Without Reservation, which was curated by Cathy Mattes who was an intern at time.

MA: It’s been a journey, I wanted to honour where Lita is in her career. I was inspired by Barbie-core at the time of planning and that connected perfectly with the vibrant pinks and purples of Lita’s artworks. It was such a refreshing take of Indigenous art; sometimes people take it so seriously and I wanted to show that Indigenous art can also be fun, free, pretty, it doesn’t always have to be about trauma, residential schools, etcetera. I wanted a fresh take on Indigenous art, something more joyful. While the issues affecting Lita’s generation still affect us intergenerationally, the way we cope with those issues has changed. Though we are still affected by colonial trauma, we can and do focus on the beauty and joy of life as well.


What is your favourite piece that will be in the show?

LF: I’m looking forward to seeing everything up, to see the results, and to nurture the work. I like all the pieces the same – it’s hard to have loyalty to a specific piece, as an artist. It took big periods of time to complete a piece when I was working (at Seven Oaks School Division as artist-in-residence). The dresses are very special to me though. My mother used to sew, my brother and sister and I would make doll clothes using the remnants of fabric from dresses. Sewing is in our family so that is special.

MA: I think my favourite is Women’s Drum, it was commissioned for this exhibition. Lita has put the original version of Women’s Drum to rest a few times, it’s interesting to reflect on the way that artists change their approaches to political issues. This was a seminal piece, she made it as part of her MFA thesis and it’s one of her signature artworks. It’s interesting how she’s revived it for this show. The spirit of the work has changed, Lita’s angst is different, it has a different energy, which is reflected in the Drum. Nothing is wrong with angst, that’s what made the initial version of the Drum so powerful, but I also respect her and where she is now in her life. That acknowledgement is an important part of the artist practice — that art is the spirit of the artist, and I hope that comes out in the show.


Was there anything challenging that came up while preparing the exhibition?

LF: Maybe not challenging, but the photographs for Women’s Drum have the angst I carried back in the 80s and 90s. At that time, in that generation and the next generation – I was around Bob Boyer, who was a mentor to me, I met Lee-Ann Martin another mentor at school, I was inspired by Colleen Cutschall and Lori Blondeau, there was a lot of angst, especially in Indigenous women. Women at the time were not allowed at drum during ceremony, and I wanted to bring more attention to that issue. We should be allowed to be at the drum, women are the drum, it’s not just for men. In some cultures, men are given the drum to understand women better, but here it was not given to women, even though the drum is a woman. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t sit at the drum. So I had my own protest, I made my own drum. To me, I thought “am I not allowed to be around my mother?” I added sound to the drum, made its heartbeat/drum beat, a low boom boom sound. It was my protest, to have women around the drum, have photographs of women’s breasts around the drum. But I’m not in angst anymore, I still understand the issue, but I wanted to change it because I’m in a different place now, my temperament has changed, I’ve matured as a woman. I’m a silent warrior now, I’ve learned a lot, learned about medicine, I respect the culture more and have a better understanding, and more self-respect too. This is fourth time the Drum has been shown. Drum is art.

MA: We had to figure out a new way for Lita to be more affirmative in her belonging around the Drum. We had to determine what to put in the photographs around the Drum. In the photos, we have the four medicines with her hands holding medicines, images of Elder Albert McLeod holding sacred items, and reflecting on current conversations around who is included in certain practices and who isn’t. Normally 2Spirit people feel excluded from ceremony, so we wanted to make the issues timelier. There are photographs of red dresses. The piece isn’t as women-centric anymore and this is the first time Lita has made a new drum.


What message do you hope people take away from the show?

LF: I want Indigenous women to be recognized, noticed more, for people to see the issues we’re going through. We’re not just angry or missing/murdered. I go to a funeral every week, I wanted to do something different, something to honour women, our mothers, aunties, and sisters, in a good way. I wanted to embrace, not protest. This is a celebration of women, to look at our beauty, who we are, and recognize that we’ve come a long way.

MA: I want people to see the joy in Indigenous art, I want Lita to be recognized for her contributions to contemporary art, and for people to see Indigenous women and think about beauty, what beauty means. Also, what it means to try and be beautiful in a world where it feels like we as Indigenous women are disposable. There is an element of pain in the show, it’s a part of all of our pasts, and Lita’s past, but I wanted to see if we can think about beauty in a way that doesn’t get rid of the pain but to just think about beauty as something that we’re still allowed to want, to aspire to, to use as armour, and connect with our relatives. We sssociate beauty with our moms, our aunties, in making dresses, braiding our hair, I wanted to capture that feeling in this exhibition.


What does it mean to you, Lita to have this solo survey at the WAG?

LF: Oh it’s wonderful. It’s like going home, a full circle moment. I was 15 when I came to the opening of the current WAG building, and it just inspired me to be an artist.


Lita, you are an artist and arts educator, what has been the most rewarding thing over the span of your career so far?

LF: Everything. But there have also been downfalls, it’s all about balance. At the time, every show is the most wonderful, but I take the criticism too. I was very influenced by the Indian Group of Seven, my friends were family members of the group, I remember I met Daphne Odjig, who I didn’t know was Daphne Odjig at the time, and that interaction inspired me to be an artist, have my work at a gallery. I also met Jackson Beardy while I was waitressing, I remember asking him questions to try and get on the path to art. Art always been around me, my community, my influences, contemporary artists, all the women from art school, and I can be my own influence, too.


You can hear Lita Fontaine speak, and of course, see the exhibition at the upcoming opening celebration of Winyan at WAG-Qaumajuq on Friday, July 5. Entry that evening is FREE for everyone, plus we’ll have tours, workshops, and other exciting programming throughout the duration of the show, stay up to date at


2 thoughts on "Living Legend, Lita Fontaine"

Esther McKenty says:

Very interesting artist.

Rachel says:

So exciting!!!♥️ I am very grateful for the background story available to read before hand. This way I can process my emotions in private. Often I find myself caught up and not able to take in an exhibit in because of processing emotions triggered by artist.Can hardly wait to hear the drum

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